Over the years, I have met several politicians at the local, state, and federal level at events that were held at my college and within my local community. I’ve met people from a variety of different roles and political parties, ranging from a candidate for state government to (then) Vice President Joe Biden, and have made sure to treat every opportunity I have to speak as an opportunity for advocating for people with vision loss like myself. Here are my tips for what to say when meeting politicians and how to effectively communicate the things that you are passionate about.
Voting and attending events
Before I get into additional details about what to say when meeting politicians, it’s helpful to know more about how to vote with low vision, as well as tips for attending political events with low vision. I have linked both of these posts below for further reading.
Research their interests ahead of time
Prior to talking to politicians and elected officials, I research their interests and platform ahead of time on their website or other media, so that I can know who the best person is to talk to about a given issue. For example, when I met the governor of Virginia who is also a pediatric neurologist, I knew that he would be more receptive to conversations about improving education services for students with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and when I met a congress member who also served on a committee for Veteran’s Affairs (also known as the VA) I made sure to talk to them about an issue I had read about involving blind veterans accessing resources related to their benefits. The congress member I met would not have as much power to address issues in Virginia schools as the governor would, and the governor only has jurisdiction over VA the commonwealth, not VA the government agency.
Introduce yourself in one sentence
Whenever I meet elected officials face-to-face, I try to keep my introductions very short and relevant to the issue. I always give my full name and mention that I run a low vision/assistive technology website called Veronica With Four Eyes, but I change what other details I mention about myself depending on the issue.
- If I am talking about healthcare or something related to chronic illness, I will mention that I live with a pre-existing condition or give the actual name of my brain condition (Chiari Malformation)
- If I am talking about education, I will mention that I am a graduate of Virginia Public Schools and/or a student at George Mason University
- If I am talking about an issue related to veterans, I will mention my dad’s veteran status and his rank in the military
- If I am talking about a bill I wrote, I will mention that this is a bill I wrote myself or that it was published in a policy journal
- Why Everyone Should Design For Chiari Malformation: My Talk At ID24 2020
- Seeing The Future: My Feature in 10 Ideas
Focus on one key issue
I try not to jump around too much when talking to people as they don’t have a lot of time, so I stick with one key issue such as an upcoming vote, local issue, or other thing that deserves their attention. When talking about bills at the state or federal level, I recommend citing either the identifying number (i.e HR 3590) or the bill’s name (i.e Affordable Care Act).
Try to speak naturally
My friend A told me that they felt that they could not speak to politicians because they get starstruck so easily and forget what they are going to say. While I don’t get starstruck by politicians or celebrities in general, one of the tips I gave my friend was to speak naturally and pretend that you are talking to a staff member or having a short conversation with a friend about a given issue.
One of the things that helps me when I am trying to figure out what I want to say about a bill is to write down the main points that I want to talk about on my whiteboard or on a document on my computer in advance. This is especially important for bills that might not be on their radar or that have not received significant media coverage.
If I wanted to tell my local congress member about why they should pass a bill that would improve college transition services for students with vision loss, the most important points I would want to cover include:
- There is no convenient place for students with vision loss to learn about accessibility and disability resources for pursuing higher education
- At least twelve million people in the US have some form of vision loss
- The current unemployment rate for people with vision loss is over 50%, with some reports listing it as high as 70%
- By giving people with vision loss a resource where they can learn more about pursuing higher education with a disability, they are more likely to consider pursuing higher education and gaining meaningful employment once they learn that there are disability and accessibility resources available
- This bill is a low-cost way to spread information about existing state and federal resources.
What if I disagree with the elected official?
Political events are not the best time to pick a fight or start yelling at an elected official, unless you want to be thrown out by security and potentially arrested. In fact, one of the most valuable conversations I have had was with someone who previously had said they did not know that blind people left the house- I used my time with them to mention that I am a college student with low vision and encouraged them to look at resources for supporting their blind constituents. I recognize that I have a lot of privilege in being able to discuss this issue and that it is not good to tone police people or have them censor their experiences, though I am not the type of person to raise my voice at someone.
If appropriate, take a picture
If there are photo opportunities, it’s fun to be able to take photos! My friend in college had a large wall of photos that featured them meeting politicians, and I am working on creating a similar album of photos so that I can remember the conversations that I had. However, I often ask that campaign staff or others refrain from posting pictures on social media for safety reasons.
Other tips for what to say when meeting politicians
- Change takes time, and the person cannot go back to the capital and immediately pass legislation to fix an issue
- For issues that require a solution, such as reporting issues with federal government agencies, I recommend getting contact information from someone in the local field office
- Do not speak to reporters until they have verified their credentials, such as the name and company they are representing